• Box seat: Simon Yates and his Mitchelton-Scott team have not put a foot wrong. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
With at least five riders still in contention, everything points towards a denouement in the third week. How the 2018 Giro ends up depends largely on the gameplay among its protagonists, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
15 May 2018 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 15 May 2018 - 11:33 PM

The capital of Belarus is a heck of a way from Gran Sasso d'Italia, but on the second of three rest days at the 2018 Giro, I wonder if the maglia rosa thought about his time in Minsk some five years ago, and how it might help him pull off the greatest coup of his fledgling career.

On February 22 at the 2013 Track World Championships, Simon Yates waited till the third-to-last sprint of the 160-lap points race to make his move in Minsk.

It wasn't until the fourteenth of sixteen sprints that the then 20-year-old placed himself in a medal-winning position; fourth place elevating him to virtual bronze, albeit still six points behind Eloy Teruel of Spain, the virtual leader. Then, instead of moving back to the pack, he pressed on and bridged solo to a three-man break that crucially, did not contain those ahead or near him on points. On the second-to-last sprint and with just 10 laps remaining in the 40 kilometre event, he was first across the line and took the maximum five points, now just one point behind Teruel.

"Well, the young British rider, somehow, has put himself in a move, and is in with a chance of winning the world title," says the voice of commentator Anthony McCrossan.

"It's all going to come down to the final sprint."

Entering the last three laps, the field was back together save for French rider Thomas Boudat, who had taken a flyer and was not to be caught. It nevertheless meant there was three, two and one points available for second to fourth - and on that final lap, in that final sprint, Yates expended every last kilojoule of energy to finish third with Teruel not placing in the points.

"Simon Yates is the world champion for Great Britain! What an absolutely stunning performance!" exclaims McCrossan.

"A massive surprise... But he got his tactics absolutely right."

A few minutes later, having composed himself, McCrossan would say: "He's gone into this race as the underdog - no one even mentioned him as a possible winner."

Here in Italia, Mitchelton-Scott appear no less formidable than Team Sky of the 2012 Tour; perhaps more so since there are no signs of internecine rivalry.

May 13, 2018, Gran Sasso d'Italia, 2.135 metres above sea level: Any doubts Simon Yates has the ability to be the 101st champion of La Corsa Rosa were dispelled with a convincing victory atop the highest mountain in the Apennines.

Yates wins Giro stage nine to extend overall lead
Simon Yates timed his final sprint to perfection to claim Giro d'Italia ninth stage and extend his lead in the overall classification.

Had Yates cracked on the Gran Sasso, then like Alejandro Valverde at the 2016 Giro, we would have known he hadn't spent the requisite time at altitude. Ultimately, inevitably, he would pay for it on the final two mountain stages in this year's race, to Bardonecchia and Cervinia, which involve ascents of the Colle delle Finestre (2.718m), Sestrière (2.035m), the stage nineteen finish at Jafferau (1.908m), and stage twenty's summit at Cervinia (2.001m).

Sunday's ninth stage to Campo Imperatore exposed him not for any weakness but for his strength, and confirmed he'd laid the groundwork. It also affirmed that the speed that carried him to the points race world title in Minsk was far from absent - and may be the very thing that, 12 days from now, sees him hold aloft the gold-spiralled Trofeo Senza Fine (the never ending trophy).

On any given day, tantalising time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds for the first three across the line; 3, 2 and 1 seconds for the last of two intermediate sprints. Nearly half of Yates' 38-second advantage to defending champion Tom Dumoulin has been eked out through such measures, and with five major mountain stages still remaining, there's plenty more where that came from.

The morning of the stage to Gran Sasso, Yates' team-mate Esteban Chaves was asked by a reporter from Eurosport if a second stage victory was within him: "Every stage is different. It's not a game. It's not Xbox or Playstation," the winner atop Etna and current second overall said.

"We are in a different situation. And I think more important for the team (than another stage win) is to keep the pink jersey."

In the end, Mitchelton-Scott did both. It may not be played on screen but it is a game. Pro cycling is often called 'chess on wheels' and for good reason. Define goals. Strategise. Execute. For stage races, analyse and assess at day's end, then repeat steps 1-3.

But The Game is ever-changing and sometimes the best-laid plans are thrown out the sport director's window, as happened en route to Etna. Again, that is where Yates' pedigree as a points race world champion, which taught him to think for himself on the fly, came into its own: "Our tactic today isn't what our sport director told us to do this morning," he revealed afterwards, having taken the maglia rosa from Rohan Dennis. "It was a crazy day with a lot of attacks going at the beginning."

The situation as it stands is not unlike the 2012 Tour de France, where Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were first and second after 11 stages and never relinquished their lead. Here in Italia, Mitchelton-Scott appear no less formidable than the Team Sky of the 2012 Tour. Perhaps more so since there are no signs of internecine rivalry among Chaves and Yates, although the former is noticeably less smiley than in 2016, the year he came within two days of winning the Giro, only to stumble on the final mountain leg thanks to Vincenzo Nibali. (For what it's worth, I actually prefer Chaves looking a little more businesslike, rather than the rictus grin like he'd been struck by The Joker.)

Save for a miraculous recovery, with Froome out of contention - "I wouldn't say (winning) is likely at this point," he said Monday - other than Chaves, I can see one of only three men able to wrest the lead away from the maglia rosa incumbent. Even then, Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo, current fourth and fifth overall, would need some sort of collapse for that to happen; to date, there's nothing to suggest it will.

Froome sees Giro chances slipping away
The first nine stages of the Giro d’Italia have not been kind to Chris Froome with two falls and a flying Simon Yates blunting his chances to make an immediate impact on the race.

By far the greatest threat is Dumoulin. "We haven't got so much time on him; 38 seconds of an advantage isn't enough before the time trial," said Yates.

Last May, on the final day of the Giro, the current world time trial champion, over 29.3 kilometres, turned a 53-second deficit into a 31-second race-winning advantage over Nairo Quintana. This year the final time test comes on stage sixteen, over 34.2 kilometres, and immediately after the third rest day.

The Dutchman will likely be fresher but that said, 48 hours later come three back-to-back high mountain stages which, on paper, will suit Yates and Chaves far more than he. With a much weaker line-up, Team Sunweb has so far played the perfect game - but if Dumoulin were to take the lead five days from the finish, would he be able to withstand the climbers' onslaught?

"I said from the beginning that we came here to win (the race)," Yates said after his win at Gran Sasso.

So did Dumoulin.